These days, most of my time at work isn’t actually spent in the office. Instead, I’m in the car – my mobile office – driving from one summer feeding site to another.
From June through August, our Kids Summer Meals program is in full force. My job is to keep in touch with more than 100 sites, making sure they have enough food and follow USDA regulations, while also providing other resources if needed.
I also track our numbers and the progress of the program: How many meals were served? At what time? How many kids ate, and how many came up for a second meal? I look at what they ate, and what they didn’t.
We try our best to adjust the menu to provide food that the kids want to eat. As you probably know, finding food that kids like can be difficult. But finding food that over 4,000 kids like … now that’s a real challenge. But we keep at it, making adjustments where we can.
In between counting heads and sandwiches, I inevitably observe something else during my visits: Many kids are ashamed to get seconds.
Program regulations and food safety rules dictate that children must finish their meals at the feeding site. That means they can’t take any food home to save for later. For many of these kids, the meal they receive at the site is the only thing they eat all day, so they fill up when they can.
On one of my site visits, I watched an 8-year-old girl eat three sandwiches. A lot of food for someone so small. She commented that she was extra hungry because the only thing at home to eat was some cheese. Her mother sat next to her, clearly embarrassed by their situation. Embarrassed that her child is so hungry she ate three sandwiches in one sitting. Suddenly, the privacy of your own home isn’t so private anymore.
It quickly becomes apparent to other children in the program that the kids going up for seconds and thirds are the ones with less food at home. Even for kids, there’s shame in receiving food assistance. Some of them end up feeling embarrassed to get in line for a second meal. So embarrassed that they simply ... don’t.
I once saw a site coordinator approach a child sitting quietly at a table. She asked if he was still hungry. He quietly replied, “Yes,” so she discreetly handed him a second meal.
Not having enough food to eat as a kid can have devastating effects: poor physical and emotional health, stunted development, and an inability to concentrate and learn new things in school.
Each day, I see the real faces of child hunger. So I drive on to the next site, knowing that I’m doing something to help 4,000 kids have the possibility of a carefree summer.
Nicole Harris is a Summer Food Service Program supervisor for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina. To learn more about feeding the hungry in our community, as well to donate time or money, visit FoodBankCENC.org.